News Tidbits 3/4/17: Oh Hey, Tax Season

4 03 2017

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1. It’s that time of the year where the Tompkins County Department of Assessment goes through its assessment process in preparation for adjustments to property values for 2017, known as “Annual Equity Maintenance”, or AEM for short. Since there are 35,249 tax parcels in Tompkins County with a total value of $11.9 billion, not all are reassessed every year – most places are reassessed every three years, except for areas of rapid change (for instance, Fall Creek is every two years at present), or individual properties that are being undergoing change, whether it be a new construction, sudden property damage, or a sales transaction. The state has their own system, called Cyclical Reassessment Program (CRP, but the county docs refer to it as CRAP), but the county opts out to do their own valuations.

Some properties are easier than others – for example, a purchaser of a big-box property isn’t buying just the building, but a long-term lease from a tenant like BJ’s in Lansing. Student houses in parts of Collegetown are worth less than the property they sit on, which the tax system cannot accommodate. They provide one example of a $500,000 house sitting on $3 million of land – that’s not something the tax system is designed to handle, so the house is overvalued, but the property as a whole is very undervalued.

The department notes that sales were strong this year. According to their records, average sales are up 4.5% from $228,442 to $238,796, and the median sale is up 2.5%, from $200,000 to $205,000. The document also only notes 677 sales, which would be the lowest since before 1990, and is lower than the 681 sales noted by the Ithaca Board of Realtors (and IBR represents most but not all agencies). Someone is mistaken, it’s just hard to tell who. Assessments are on average about 8% lower (9% median) than home sale prices.

Some of the other takeaways are a modest softening in the student housing market in 2016 (Cornell enrollment in Ithaca did drop slightly from 2015-16, before renewing its upward trajectory in 2017), the city and Dryden’s Ellis Hollow continue to be strong markets but the other suburban neighborhoods are regaining interest, and Groton’s a mixed bag due to the poor state of some village properties. New assessments for 2017 (including parts of Ithaca town, Caroline, Freeville, Enfield, lakeside properties, restaurant properties, and manufacturing facilities) will be publicly available on July 1st.

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2. The redesign of Schwartz Plaza has started the formal review process. Cornell submitted the sketch plan at the February meeting, and hopes to have approvals for the renovation by next month. The properties would lose the walls and open up to the surrounding Collegetown, in what Cornell and Ithaca hope will give the densely-populated neighborhood a needed public gathering space. As reported by the Cornell Daily Sun’s Nick Bogel-Burroughs, project manager David Cutter hopes that the project leads to further public space enhancements near the stone arch bridge and down by Eddygate – this includes additional pedestrian and bike facilities, electronic boards with bus information, and a possible realignment of the Oak/College intersection into a T-configuration.

But for now the focus is on Schwartz Plaza. Cornell intends to have approvals within 1-2 months, start construction in June, and have the new plaza ready by August 2017. Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architects is the design firm of record.

Postscript, Novarr’s townhouses at 238 Linden were pulled from the meeting before the sketch plan was due to be presented at the city planning board meeting last Tuesday. As for 301 Eddy, still trying to dig up information.

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3. Nick Reynolds has a very interesting profile and interview of Jason Fane over at the Times. Definitely worth a read about one of Ithaca’s most prominent landlords.

Speaking personally, I’ve got mixed feelings about it, if only because it takes a blog quote I made about 330 College Avenue in 2014, and in the article’s context, I sound like an arthouse snob. Fane has always been serious about building on the property, and that’s great, but I stand by my quote on 330 – after the years of negotiations on the new form district code, there is no way a 12-story building was going to be built on the corner of College and Dryden, even if Jagat Sharma, Fane’s favored architect, brought his A-game. It’s not a matter of economics or taste, it’s a matter of very real opposition from the Belle Sherman and East Hill neighborhoods. Any politician who considers signing off would be voted out of office ASAP. Any city staffer who consents will be shown the door. Look at what happened with State Street Triangle. In a city where people have many gripes about development, this is one project that is truly stopped in its tracks. I think Fane could negotiate 7 or even 8 stories if he gives the city a donation towards affordable housing, or some other community benefit. but not 11 or 12.

I like grand buildings and imposing structures, but I’m also a realist. End rant.

4. Todd Fox’s Visum Development has a couple construction updates on their Facebook page. Exterior stud walls are being installed on the lower floors of 201 College, and two of the three townhouse strings at 902 Dryden Road have been fully framed and sheathed, with siding installation underway. At a glance, it looks like the exterior will look more like the elevations on Modern Living Rentals’ listings page rather than the STREAM Collaborative renders – the renders had horizontal lap siding, the elevations show vertical lap siding as seen above.

If more developer could post updates as Visum and Carina Construction do, that would be swell.

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5. Wrapping up a quiet news week, here’s the agenda for the town of Ithaca planning board next week. A lot subdivision for a new house, a pair of communication towers, and the final approvals for the Sleep Inn proposed by hotelier Pratik Ahir at 635 Elmira Road. True to the sketches presented last fall, the design has that rustic look on all sides of the structure, and all the town’s requests have been met, which should allow for a smooth final approval meeting on Tuesday. The design will be unique among the 320 locations of the Sleep Inn chain. It should be noted that the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals was very split on the height and size variances, approving them with just a 3-2 margin.

In the other towns, the only one with anything new to report is Danby, whose planning board is looking at a special use permit for a property management company’s offices at 1429 Danby Road, and a 3,535 SF expansion to the Ithaca Waldorf School at 20 Nelson Road.





Hotel Ithaca Construction Update, 2/2017

21 02 2017

The to-do list for the $13.8 million Hotel Ithaca “modernization” is drawing short as it nears its May completion date. All the DensGlass fireproof fiberglass mat gypsum sheathing is in place and the edges of the panels are closed up with liquid flashing. On top of the sheathing are metal clips to which the exterior panels are mounted. The stone veneer on the first floor is mostly finished. Many, but not all of the balcony doors, windows and AC units have been fitted. Details like balcony railings will be installed towards the end of exterior work. On the inside of the building, it’s a good bet that the rough-ins are complete, insulation and drywall is probably in place and close to being completed, with crews moving onto things like subfloors/underlayment, painting, and installation of room fixtures such as sinks and bathtubs. The rest of the AC units will likely go in after the subfloors are installed.

Some Hotel Ithaca job postings are advertising 94 new rooms, but unless there were some last minute changes, the number on file is 90. Also worth noting, the contractor, Buffalo-based Krog Corp., and its team of subcontractors have done a fairly good job of staying on Hart Hotels’ schedule – the SPR doc from two years ago called for an April 2017 opening.

More background info on the Hotel Ithaca project can be found here, and by using the “Hotel Ithaca” tag one can backtrack through the bimonthly progress reports.

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Hotel Ithaca Construction Update, 12/2016

15 12 2016

The Hotel Ithaca addition at 222 South Cayuga is topped off and has taken the shape of the final product. Most of the new windows have been fitted into the exterior walls. Air conditioning units will be installed in the smaller openings. Peering inside, it looks like the interior framing is all set, and utilities rough-ins are underway.

In most places, the DensGlass fiberglass mat sheathing is being sealed up with R-Guard FastFlash liquid flashing, to close up the seams, joints and fasteners. Some of the newer sections, like the south wall, have yet to be sealed – in fact, workers were cutring and installing the DensGlass boards on the balconies while these photos were being taken. Since the balconies aren’t meant for full-time occupancy, the fiberglass mats are going directly onto the steel studs, without the R-Max polyiso. Taking a guess here, the gray coat on the front (east) wall might be a primer material for the exterior facade.

Along with general contractor and frequent Hart Hotels partner Krog Corp, it looks like Henderson Johnson Inc. of Syracuse was tapped for some subcontracting, and IBEW-sponsored John Mills Electric of Ithaca is handling the electrical rough-ins for the new wing.

The new $13.77 million addition should open in May 2017, just in time for the big graduation weekends. More background info on the Hotel Ithaca project can be found here.
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News Tidbits 11/5/16: Condemnation and Praise

5 11 2016

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1. The Maguire waterfront plan has been rejected. By an 8-2 vote, the Ithaca city Common Council voted to discontinue consideration of the state-of-the-art Ford/Lincoln/Nissan dealership, with most citing concerns about the project’s marginal or poor fit with the city’s comprehensive plan, which calls for an urban mixed-use form of development in the Carpenter Circle area where this dealership is proposed. The votes in favor of the proposal, from the third ward’s Donna Fleming and first ward’s George McGonigal, cited ways it could be conceived as fitting with the plan (greener alternative, local business expansion), and challenges the site offers to the city’s urban plan (poor soils, trains, chemical storage, power lines).

Although this shuts down the current proposal, this may not be the last we hear from the Maguires or the Carpenter Business Park site. At the meeting, company President Phil Maguire offered a teaser, saying they may partially liquidate their land holdings to bring in mixed-use development that would share the CBP space with the dealership. Given the heavy alterations that would need to occur, the council decided to vote down the existing proposal and send a message that it doesn’t fit the city’s goals. However, the council said they and the planning department would expedite review of an amended proposal, should it come forth.

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2. If you’ve ever wanted some explicit discussion of the challenges of doing affordable housing in Tompkins County, here’s a great summary courtesy of the the town of Ithaca. Back in August, the town’s Planning Committee (of town board members, similar to the city’s PEDC Committee) met with Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services Director Paul Mazzarella for a Q&A. The town is considering regulations for inclusionary housing, and after INHS’s Greenways project fell through, they would like guidance and input on to make an effective code that promotes affordable housing without killing all residential development. Here are some of the highlights:

– Ithaca is a market of smaller builders. Local developers aren’t able or interested in doing huge projects, and most outsiders don’t see Tompkins County as a big enough or profitable enough market to tap into. So that leaves it to smaller builders who don’t have scale efficiencies, and are inclined to build luxury housing because the return on investment is more likely (i.e. less risky). The strong local economy also means that the local construction labor pool is largely tapped out, and additional crews have to be imported.

– Mandated affordable housing tends to work best in expensive, hot markets where the Return on Investment (ROI) for the market-rate units is more likely – your Seattles, San Franciscos and New Yorks. Even there, it is often paired with incentives such as height or square footage. Mazzarella noted he doesn’t think the city’s voluntary program will work very well. One thing to note with mixed-income projects is that the market-rate units will often be higher priced to cover the cost of lower-priced units. Simplified example – say you’re building ten houses for a sale price of $250,000. To meet an affordable mandate you sell two at $200,000, but to still obtain adequate ROI, that $100,000 is going to spread among the other eight – so you have two for sale at at $200,000, and eight at $262,500.

– We talk about modular homes as lower-cost alternatives, and for rural locations they often are, due to materials and labor costs. However, INHS found that in their experience for sites in the city and town, the cost is comparable to stick-built, although at larger scales, cost efficiencies may be achieved (ex. the Belle Sherman Cottages).

Another interesting read is the committee’s September meeting with city historic preservation planner Bryan McCracken and Historic Ithaca’s Christine O’Malley about protecting historical resources. As it turns out, the city cannot designate an individual landmark without the owner’s permission, and historic districts require the approval of 60% of affected property owners.

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3. Seems like Tiny Timbers had a well-attended open house. On their blog, the Dolphs have shared a cross-sectional diagram of an exterior wall – beneath the hemlock siding and copper trim will be ZIP sheathing and polyiso (thermoset plastic foam) insulation. ZIP is everywhere in residential construction, polyiso less common – locally, it was used extensively with the Boiceville Cottages in Caroline. On the inside, one has sheetrock and bamboo flooring. Exposed hemlock posts and ceilings will complement the sheetrock.

Also being rolled out is a fifth home design, a larger two-bedroom, two-bath home with a hipped roof. Variety is the space of life, as the saying goes.

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4. It was exciting to finally see the release of renderings for John Novarr’s College Townhouses project at 119-125 College Avenue. Links to the Site Plan Review document, historical documentation and drawings can be found in the Voice write-up here. There have yet to be images released for the garden apartment building to be built at the rear of the property, but look for the same general design features as the rowhouses. As expected from ikon.5 Architects, the design is modern and glassy, and given the Facebook comments and a couple of emails that came in, some neighbors are less than happy about that. However, this isn’t a historic district, so long as it meets zoning regulations, Novarr is free to hire whoever he darn well pleases. As mentioned in previous write-ups, he had ikon.5 design his guest house, so this isn’t strictly a cost thing, he genuinely likes their work. It was a bit surprising but interesting to see the well-researched history of the three 19th century boarding houses currently on the property, and it makes me wonder if that was a requirement. Novarr’s proven to be accommodating in the past, perhaps he’ll deconstruct rather than demolish, and the salvageable parts can be reused.

The project team will meet with members of the Planning Board on Tuesday afternoon for Design Review – about the only thing that stands out at initial glance is the lack of windows or visual interest with the north face, barely noticeable in the rendering. That probably won’t fly with the board, but we’ll see if it gets changed up as it goes through review. City Centre, the 8-story Trebloc site redevelopment, will also undergo further design review at the meeting.

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5. The Chapter House is going to the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) yet again. The changes are subtle and few, but the rules are the rules. A service door will be added to the west (rear) wall, the inset vestibule is being reconfigured a bit, and the third-floor dormer windows are being changed from double-hung to casement – meaning that instead of sliding up and down, they’ll open with a crank. The ILPC will vote on the changes in November, which will probably sail through without much debate, and hopefully, just maybe, quite possibly, the Chapter House project can get underway.

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6. A couple quick updates from the town of Ithaca Planning Board minutes – after some discussion and a bit of praise for the redesign effort, the board opted for timber-trimmed Design “A” for the Sleep Inn proposal on Elmira Road. The minutes from Maplewood’s EIS meeting were also uploaded, and it is rare to see this much positivity in discussion of a project – not to say there weren’t dissenters, but the alternative energy source and efficiency initiative, use of local labor, and softening of the design on Mitchell Street won most of the speaking audience over. Public comment closed on Halloween, and now the project team must respond to all the reasonable comments received as part of the review process.





Hotel Ithaca Construction Update, 10/2016

12 10 2016

The Hotel Ithaca is moving at a pretty good clip. The stud walls are up to the third floor. If my notes from the August interview are right, the walls are assembled in sections off-site and trucked in for installation.

Most of the building uses R-Max polyiso insulation covered with Georgia-Pacific DensElement sheathing. The polyisocyanurate, a thermal plastic foam board, helps limit heat loss, and the DensGlass is gypsum panel coated with fiberglass mat, eliminating the need for spray-on waterproofing and fire-rated for the safety of guests (polyiso is a fire risk). The first floor by the elevator and mechanical spaces, and the areas under renovation by the lobby use US Gypsum Securock, and do not appear to have the polyiso layer. The change in sheathing, and use of R-Max might have to do with the expected heat loss from certain parts of the hotel, perhaps greater energy loss is expected from the hotel rooms than from the mechanical spaces. A peek inside shows exposed interior stud walls. The large space in the in the ninth photo will be a new entry area, coatroom and prefunction space.

A filing with Tompkins County indicates that M&T Bank is providing a $13,765,000 construction loan to finance construction, of which $1.6 million is going towards soft costs like legal fees and pre-opening administrative costs. The cost to furnish and equip the 90 new rooms and function/conference space is about $1,393,400.

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Ithaca Marriott Construction Update, 10/2016

11 10 2016

Home stretch for the Marriott. Official opening is November 15th. Although that means they’ll be opening towards the start of the slow season for the local hospitality industry, the general manager says they hope that it’ll give them a chance to work out any wrinkles in service before the lodging season perks up again in March. Hiring has been underway for service staff, with full employment expected to be somewhere between 50 and 60, 75% full time, with wages starting at $10 plus tips for restaurant wait staff, up to $18-$19/hour for other service positions.

From what can be found by playing on the Ithaca Marriott Downtown on the Commons webpage, a mid-week one-night stay in a king or double queen will set you back $195 at a minimum, while the weekends start around $269/night. A run-down of some of the amenities can be found on the website, or in the August construction update. The hotel will have 151 regular guest rooms and 8 suites, which are the rooms with the floor-to-ceiling glass at the corner of State and Aurora.

The Nichiha metal panels are almost complete, with just the west face exposed at this point. I did not expect them to be so bright, beyond the unintended gleam-o-vision of my camera. The rooftop mechanical penthouse has been framed but has yet to have its exterior panels attached. Some of the Marriott signage has been attached already. Most of the stone veneer has been attached, although the finishes for the Commons entrance are still a work in progress. Judging from the plastic sheets on the roof, the synthetic rubber membrane still has yet to be applied. Photos on the hotel’s facebook page show that the front desk is in and sheetrock has been hung and mudded in some places (the “mud” is a premixed joint compound used to cover joints and seams and to allow for a smooth finish for painting). The banner at the top of the penthouse says “The Place To Be”, with the Marriott logo at top.

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News Tidbits 10/8/16: No Rain, But the Money’s Flowing

8 10 2016

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1. The Sleep Inn project at 635 Elmira Road went back to the town of Ithaca planning board last Tuesday. The initial write-up looked good – town planners were very pleased with the proposed changes, and the developer, local hotelier Pratik Ahir, proposed two different concepts to the board to see which one they were more comfortable with. The one that the board likes would be finalized in the plans and submitted for final approval later this year. No media were at the meeting, so I do not know which concept they preferred.

Both concepts by HEX 9 Architects attempt to maintain the rustic character that the town seeks to maintain for its part of the Inlet Valley Corridor. Concept one at top uses stone veneer (Elderado Stone), timber trusses, Hardie plank lap siding, and asphalt shingles. This design features balconies on both the front and rear of the building. Concept 2 incorporates a more varied roofline and building face, metal roof panels, stone veneer and a couple different types of Hardie Board. Concept 2 has less timber and no balconies. The town planning department felt that both concepts were unique enough and rustic enough to get its benediction in the SEQR analysis they sent over to the board. The concepts are a big improvement over the rendition we saw in August.

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2. Looks like the Canopy Hilton is a go. The project secured a $19.5 million construction loan from ESL Federal Credit Union on Friday September 30th. ESL is a new face to the local market – “Eastman Savings and Loan” was founded in Rochester in 1920 to serve employees of former photography giant Eastman Kodak. The 7-story, 131-room hotel is expected to open in Spring 2018.

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3. Also funded this week – the second phase of Poet’s Landing out in the village of Dryden. Citibank is lending $7,702,326 to Rochester-based Confier LLC to build the 48 affordable apartment units across the street from Dryden High School, just west of 72-unit phase one. The documents were filed on Tuesday the 4th. The design of the second phase’s will be the same as phase one’s, an eight unit per building design by NH Architecture that is one of Conifer’s standard designs. The total project cost is $10.8 million, with the balance come from state affordable housing grants and tax credits. The build-out is expected to take about a year.

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4. So a few news bits about 201 College. The partially-deconstructed house at 201 College is now getting torn down, which had nothing to do with approval, and everything to do with break-ins and safety issues – there was evidence of squatters taking up residence, and the expense of a tear-down is worth avoiding a lawsuit or tragedy. Speaking of which, although a ruling on 201 College has yet to be issued and won’t be for a few weeks, Neil Golder’s lawsuit has already been re-filed. The court hearing is scheduled for December. According to an exchange with my colleague Mike Smith, Fox is planning rowhouses along Bool Street, within a 45-foot height limit but spanning the block, as it seems he has a purchase option on neighboring 202 Linden.

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5. According to Nick Reynolds at the Times (yes, he jumped papers), the buildings to be deconstructed for the Harold’s Square project are to be vacated by the end of October. Developer David Lubin plans to start the deconstruction process, which is a little more intensive and lengthier than a typical demolition, in November. Things have been complicated by the city’s decision to forego the project in the Restore NY grant application, where the $500,000 was allocated to pay for demolition, and must now be sourced from elsewhere. Once secured, the plan is to file for the permit, and by law they have up to 30 days to start deconstruction from the day the permit is issued. Construction should go for about 18 months, once the site is cleared.

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6. The 8-unit 607 South Aurora project will be seeking “Declaration of Lead Agency” at the Planning Board meeting, and materials have been filed with the city. Project narrative here, SPR application here, drawings here. The big changes since sketch plan were sidewalk and parking lot revisions, and rotating Building D to establish harmony with Hillview Place. The project is estimated to cost $1.5 million and aims for a construction timeline of March to September 2017. This is the next incremental step up for Charlie O’Connor of Modern Living Rentals, whose M.O. is to quietly pursue modestly-sized infill projects in less dense parts of the city (ex. the two duplexes planned for 312-314 Old Elmira). In a change of pace, the staff of Sharma Architecture are the designers this time around.

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7. From the Board of Zoning Appeals meeting, the new two-family house at 123 Eddy Street has been granted zoning variances. Expect the Sharma-designed two-unit, six-bedroom rental property to start construction next year in time for the 2017-18 academic year.

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6. House of the week. Instead of one underway, this week will show two recent completions. Leading off is this house on West Hill’s Campbell Avenue, built by Carina Construction. This project came up in a weekly roundup back in late May – it’s a $320,000 project per the permit filing with the city, with $280,000 lent by Tompkins Trust. The contrast between the wood siding and the (fiber cement?) vinyl siding is a nice touch, as is the two-story porch. Definitely a unique house, and a showcase of just what kind of variety one can do with modular pieces if they’re willing to get creative.

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Now for house number two. This isn’t a new build, but a very thorough renovation. Every time I take photos, I run into the owners, and normally I try to be as unobtrusive as possible. But, given that I’ve run into him twice, he’s familiar enough with me that we’ve had a conversation about his work.

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This is in Fall Creek on North Aurora. The couple who own this place moved in from Pennsylvania, they were just starting retirement when the wife’s father was no longer able to take care of it. It had been a duplex, but the other unit was more workshop space. The building was in good shape, but these folks wanted to modernize and refresh it, so they decided to do a to-the-studs renovation, basically turning it into a new home within an existing shell. Fiber cement, wood shingles, a few modern touches (the south bumpout, the unusual gable/shed hybrid dormers), a carriage house, a lot of work went into it over the past year and a half and it shows.